Misty of Baltimore
September 17, 2012
Misty’s origins were mysterious, like an international spy or an auto-immune disease. One day her name just started coming up, and when I asked my dad how he met her, he told me it was a story for another day in a tone that convinced me not to follow up.
Their relationship was confusing for several reasons. The most obvious being their substantial age difference, and the fact that Misty was young and beautiful while my dad was well, my dad. He was handsome and tall in a Brawny Man kind of way, and had an impressive amount of salt and pepper hair for his age, but he also had a dad mustache and a belly. He would often spend a couple of nights a week at her apartment an hour away in Baltimore, but he did not refer to her as his girlfriend even though they had been seeing each other for more than a year, and I had never seen them be openly affectionate. Mostly, they seemed to have bonded over their mutual interest in TV shows and movies that appealed to fifteen year old boys, and the fact that he was willing to put up with her acting insane.
I found Misty both fascinating and insufferable. At twenty-five she was nine years older than me and twenty years younger than my dad. She had a southern Virginia drawl that I always regarded as low class. This could have been due more to the things she said than the way she said them. One of the first times I’d met her was at Lilith Fair. She had brought along her friend Maddie who I later learned was a woman she was dating and who, for obvious reasons, severely resented my father. Halfway through the concert Misty got drunk and announced to everyone within twenty feet of us that the Dixie Chicks would have been better named Dicks and Chicks. All of the other parents who were there with their daughters turned to look at us, but none of them said anything. She had a tendency to offset her natural prettiness by wearing baggy tank tops and shorts that showed off her tattoos along with knee-high combat boots, a look that equally warded off and invited confrontation depending on where she was. I concentrated on the fact that Sarah McLachlan was standing a mere five hundred feet away from me, and tried to pretend I was there by myself.
Even after I’d realized that Misty and I probably had nothing in common, part of me still held out hope that I could get something out of her relationship with my dad. It was weird that she was so much younger than him, but that also left open the possibility for the two of us to bond, which I was secretly eager for. I was also aware that she was much cooler than me. At sixteen, I was still too shy to go to parties, and spent most of my time reading Oprah’s Book Club picks and being one of the least talented and most dedicated players on my lacrosse team. Misty didn’t give a fuck about anything, and made no attempts to suck up to me. The only pieces of advice I remember her giving me were, “Don’t eat bananas. They’re full of sugar and they’ll make you fat,” and “Men just want to stick it in anything that has a hole between its legs.”
The day she moved in I refused to help. I stayed in my room listening to Jagged Little Pill at full volume and only came downstairs when my dad called up to say we were having pizza.
The living room didn’t look like any more of a disaster than it usually did so I assumed they had moved all of Misty’s things to the basement. Then I heard a growl.
Contained in the kitchen by a baby gate that came halfway up his chest, Misty’s albino Doberman, Dante, stared at me and made a sound I could only have imagined hearing at the gates of hell.
“Don’t worry, once he gets to know you he’s like a big puppy,” my dad said from the couch.
“Does that collar have spikes on the inside?”
“Hi Sarah!” Misty waved.
I felt like she had moved in to mock me. She was sitting next to my dad watching a show that involved home videos of people on skateboards falling off of things. Every so often she would pick a slice of pepperoni off her pizza and feed it to another dog sitting at her feet. This one was the size of a terrier. It had a shiny black body with a brown muzzle and feet, and its eyes bulged out of its face a little, giving the appearance that everything it did was very urgent. Every so often Misty would dangle one of the pieces of meat in front of her and the dog would jump straight up.
“Wait, how many animals do we have now?”
“Just these two and a cat that’s hiding downstairs. She’s a weirdo. You’ll probably never see her. I’m picking up another one at the airport in a couple days that’s supposed to be friendlier.”
Misty collected animals like they were shoes. She grew up on a horse farm. My dad said it made her less sentimental about pets than most people. She bought them on impulse based on how cute or trendy they were. She’d had a Mynah bird but got rid of it when she couldn’t train it to say her name. The sugar gliders lasted a week, which was how long it took her to realize they didn’t do anything.
“What kind of dog is this?” I asked.
I put my hand out toward it. It whined and looked at Misty.
“I don’t know. She was supposed to be a Teacup Chihuahua, but the bitch I got her from must have thought I was stupid. Those things weigh three pounds.”
Misty pulled a camera out of her purse. She scrolled through to a picture of her wearing a men’s shirt with the dog sticking out of the breast pocket.
“That’s what she looked like when I got her. Then she turned into this.”
“I think she’s cute. What’s her name?”
“Yeah, for a fatty. It’s Ali Sheva. You can have her if you want. I already tried taking her back.”
“I didn’t think you could return dogs.”
“This thing cost me $500. The lady at the puppy farm told me the reason she’s four times bigger than she’s supposed to be is because she’s not getting enough calcium. If your dad wasn’t with me I would have hit her.”
I turned to my dad. “Can I really have her?”
“Sure, just make sure you walk her when you get home from school.”
I had never had a dog, and I wasn’t that excited about this one. Taking care of her would be a distraction though, and it would be nice to have something to sleep with at night. I picked her up. She squirmed around a lot, but she let me carry her to my room. She sat on the bed for about two minutes before jumping down and whining at the door. I didn’t let her out.
My dad had dated a few women before Misty, but she was the first one I ever met. In the years since my father dated her, he had a string of very attractive, much younger girlfriends, often more than one of them at a time. I eventually figured out that this had something to do with his desire never to get married again. It allowed him to take situations other people might consider deal breakers in stride. Mentally disabled kids from a marriage to an Army officer that isn’t technically dissolved yet? Crippling depression that causes you to hide in your apartment for weeks at a time? A job that only allows you to be on the East Coast once every five weeks? My dad embraced all of these things, and when the relationships inevitably fell apart due to these complications, he quietly accepted it and soon moved on to someone else.
It wasn’t surprising that he didn’t want to get married again. My parents separated when I was two and divorced when I was four. I had no memory of them being together, which I considered lucky. I never fantasized about them falling in love again, and us living as a family. That would have been like being homesick for a place I’d never been.
From the beginning they agreed I should live with my dad. They were both alcoholics, but my dad had quit drinking after I was born. My mom could never stay sober for more than a few months at a time. Then, after the divorce, she stopped drinking too. She rented an apartment ten minutes from my dad’s house and started working at a store that sold music boxes in the mall. In a few months she was promoted to manager. I stayed with her a few nights a week and whenever my dad went out of town. Our relationship wasn’t great, she was bipolar and even at her most together she could be erratic, but she had managed to do what both of my parents probably thought was impossible when they split up; she had created a world for me where she was always around.
I was thirteen when my mother relapsed and I started staying with my dad full-time. Within months she had lost her job, and moved in with a boyfriend who occasionally hit her. By the time Misty came along she had moved to Pennsylvania to live with her parents, been kicked out for drinking, and taken up with a man named Bert who she had met in AA and who had also relapsed.
I didn’t know how to react to any of this. Growing up, I’d never even known she’d had a drinking problem. Suddenly she was a completely different person who couldn’t manage to go grocery shopping let alone help raise a kid. My dad did his best to help me understand her addiction. He had always been pretty closed off about his feelings though, and suggested I go to Alateen for the extra emotional support.
Talking to a group of strangers about problems I wasn’t even revealing to my friends didn’t hold much appeal. Instead, I started waking up at 5am every day to go running before school and spent more time than ever locked in my room reading novels and writing bad poetry. A few years later, my dad’s sister told me that his marriage to my mother damaged him in ways he was never able to repair. He had been through countless disasters with her that ranged from suicide attempts to alcohol-induced seizures, and eventually his capacity to become emotionally invested in anyone started to drop off. In some ways, my mother relapsing gave my father and I the bond of two soldiers who had been through the same war. In other ways, learning about my parents’ complicated and devastating past made me feel like I knew my father even less than I’d realized.
Initially, things weren’t that different. At first, Misty didn’t have a job and stayed in the basement all day. Then my dad’s seventy year-old secretary retired, and he let Misty replace her. He worked as a sales representative for restaurant equipment companies and was out making calls most days. His business consisted of my cousin and himself, so Misty’s job primarily involved answering the phone in an empty office.
I stayed out of the house as much as I could. I had lacrosse practice every day and when I got home I worked on college applications. I didn’t tell any of my friends that Misty lived with us. The whole thing was too strange, and I rarely had anyone over so I knew no one would find out. Even before she moved in, our house wasn’t exactly normal. My dad worked a lot and when he came home he didn’t feel like cleaning. He did, somehow, feel like starting renovation projects he never finished which resulted in a hole in our living room ceiling where he had tried to repair water damage and a bathroom floor that was missing half its tiles.
Whenever I tried talking to him about how confusing all of this was for me, I didn’t get very far. We had gone to Dairy Queen one night after dinner. On the way home the classic rock station announced they would be playing The Grateful Dead Live at the Fillmore East in its entirety. Instead of pulling into our townhouse complex he kept driving down the road that eventually led to the highway. He did this sometimes when something came on the radio that he really liked. They were always songs from the past.
I liked this time with my dad and didn’t want to ruin it by bringing up Misty. I also knew the detour wouldn’t last long and that I hadn’t had much time alone with him since she moved in.
I stared out the window.
“Why are you letting Misty stay with us? I still don’t understand. Isn’t there anywhere else she could go?”
“She needs to save money and I need a new secretary. It just worked out this way.”
“I feel weird living with her. She makes comments about what I eat and our house has turned into an animal shelter.”
My dad took a bite of his Blizzard then continued balancing it between his knees.
“I don’t know, Sarah. I like spending time with her. The situation won’t last forever.”
I wasn’t satisfied, but it was obvious there was nothing I could do about any of this. My dad turned the car around and we headed home.
I never learned to like living with Misty. Even though she was constantly around, we didn’t talk much, and I was always uncomfortable around her. She did, however, manage to make things more interesting.
Misty loved pop music. My dad, who rarely listened to anything recorded after 1975, accompanied her to see Pink, Shania Twain, and Ricky Martin in the first months she lived with us. One night I came home from school and was informed that instead of doing homework I would be going to an arena in D.C. to watch an Amy Grant/Vince Gill Christmas concert. Another night they brought me along to a Christian coffee shop in Vienna where a singer Misty was stalking was performing.
Misty possessed a kind of fandom I had never encountered. For a while she was obsessed with Angelina Jolie. In addition to hanging up posters she also cut out pictures from magazines and framed them for her bed stand as though Angelina was her long distance girlfriend. She must have gotten tired of having a relationship that was so unrequited because her next subject was much more accessible.
Nichole Norderman was a Christian singer and the recipient of several Dove awards which are the Christian music equivalent of the Grammys. I know this because Misty recorded the night she won and replayed it enough times that she could recreate not only Nichole’s acceptance speeches, but also her expressions every time her name was called. I’m pretty sure Misty was her only stalker. At first it seemed like a joke because a) Misty wasn’t religious and b) Nichole was awful. It became clear she was serious when Misty started going to all of her shows, and talking about her like they were friends. Nichole gamely never filed a restraining order, but they eventually had a falling out when Misty brought a singing Britney Spears doll to show Nichole at one of her concerts and Nichole took it mistaking it for a gift.
One night I came home from school and found my dad playing with a Chihuahua in the kitchen. It looked like an insect.
“Sarah, meet Taco. Taco, Sarah.”
The dog was running back and forth at my dad’s feet and my dad kept his eyes on it as he introduced us.
“Is it ours?”
“He’s Misty’s, but she’s giving him to a friend.”
Taco licked a spot on the floor then ran over to a broom in the corner and peed on it.
“He really loves that broom,” my dad said.
At that point I had started getting used to all the animals. Once Dante realized I wasn’t out to attack either him or Misty, he reminded me more of a clumsy horse than a guardian of the underworld. He would lie down in the living room and I would rest my head on his stomach while I watched TV. My dad ended up taking care of Ali most of the time. He would take her for walks in the morning and sometimes made her eggs when they got back. As a result she followed him around like a tiny apostle and cried whenever he left the room.
“Where did Taco come from?” I asked.
I wanted to pick him up, but I didn’t want him to pee on me.
“The same place where she got Ali.”
“Why would she get another dog there? Didn’t they screw her over?”
“Well, um, this dog was kind of free.”
“They gave it to her? After all that?”
My dad made a superficial attempt to evade my question a couple more times, but the story he eventually told me was this:
After the woman at the dog farm refused to take Ali back, Misty became obsessed with revenge. If she couldn’t return a dog she didn’t want, she was going to take some that she did.
Long after I had fallen asleep the night before, Misty and my dad had dressed in black, and driven two hours south to the puppy farm. They brought bolt cutters and flashlights. When they were a mile away they put black tape on the brake lights to make my dad’s army green Land Rover invisible. My dad used the bolt cutters to make a hole in the fence surrounding the property. When the dogs started to bark at the noise, Misty threw some raw hamburger into the yard to distract them.
They knew they didn’t have much time, but they still wanted to be selective. My dad wanted to grab a sandy-brown Chow. It was his favorite kind of dog and he thought I would like it because it looked like a teddy bear. When he went to pick it up he realized it was too heavy to run to the car with. Then he saw Montague.
Montague, or Monty as Misty eventually started calling him, was a tiny black Yorkie the size that Ali was supposed to be. He was trying to get at the hamburger they had thrown, but kept getting pushed out by the other puppies. My dad picked Monty up and Monty immediately started licking him.
At that point a light had come on in the house. Misty and my dad only had one dog each, but they figured they only had a few minutes to get out of there. They jumped in the car with Monty and Taco. Taco hid under the backseat crying and occasionally peeing. Monty snuggled into Misty’s lap. She had planned on either giving both dogs away or trying to sell them. She had her hands full with Dante and taking two dogs in exchange for the one she’d gotten cheated on had satisfied her sense of revenge. By the end of the ride home though, she was already attached to him. She could put him in the pocket of her cargo pants and he wasn’t high-strung like most dogs his size.
“She’s at the vet now making sure he’s had all his shots and didn’t catch any weird diseases from all those other puppies.”
“Wait, you took the dogs and then you just drove away?”
“Is someone going to come after you? Do you think they saw you?”
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any way they can find us. Misty should be coming home with Monty soon. You’ll like him. He’s really cute.”
My mind was exploding. Whose parents stole things? Not only things, but living things?
At the same time, I was impressed. This felt like a glimpse into a dad I didn’t know; the guy who made money selling beer to Boy Scouts when he was thirteen, and who hitchhiked from Philadelphia to California when he was in high school. I’d had no idea he was still capable of these kinds of things.
Instead of asking where this criminal impulse had come from or what else he was involved in that I needed to know about, I shook my head and said, “You’re nuts.”
“Well the next time you need some vigilante justice done you know who to call. Misty and I are thinking about starting a professional pet-napping business.”
He was clearly proud of himself.
Misty only stayed with us another month after that. This was long enough for her to be present when my dad took my prom picture in our backyard, and loudly announce that my dress made my boobs look huge.
My dad said that for a while she was living in a farmhouse in southern Virginia with ten other people. They were trying to open a cheap Mexican food franchise, and Misty was in charge of their marketing. When that went bust after a few years, she went back to Maryland and moved in with her mom.
Years after she moved out, my dad told me that he had known from the beginning that he and Misty wouldn’t last. Not only was she completely unstable, but she had told him as much. He said that he just had fun being with her, and tried to enjoy it for as long as he could.
Before she moved south, she rented part of a townhouse in D.C. for a few months. She still had Montague. With the exception of Dante, it was the longest she’d ever held onto any animal. One morning she opened the front door and Monty ran out into the street. Within seconds, he was killed by a car.
This happened the summer before I left for college. Misty called my dad late at night, and he woke me up to tell me. I had never seen him cry.
Sarah Bridgins is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in InDigest, Monkeybicycle, Pear Noir!, and Bone Bouquet among other journals. She is the proud owner of a Virginia Woolf finger puppet.